Since the Internet is awash with factual and practical travel advice about Berlin, I decided it would be pointless to add another spoonful of water to the sea, so I went for a strictly personal diary of photos and impressions which can hopefully still come in handy should someone feel a devastating urge to visit Berlin. (It’s a very correct urge and it should therefore be followed.)
Booking accommodation in cities you don’t know, especially last minute, is always a bit tricky. What you think is central might not be quite so, then there are some central neighbourhoods which might not necessarily be your dream destination-looking good on the map is one, looking good in real life, quite another thing. In Berlin we got lucky though, Moabit, albeit the former home of a prison with pretty bad rep from Nazi times, is absolutely enjoyable and close to the centre even by foot, though in the long run it’s probably best to take the U-bahn.
Berlin is very green, and pretty proud to be so. I couldn’t help but think that there are other ways of running a city than covering it with shiny slabs of super functional concrete, a new found hobby of Budapest’s city fathers. It was a total joy to meet an absolutely real, though admittedly brown, rabbit pottering around Tiergarten, whose speed sadly eluded my camera.
I’m usually more than suspicious when it comes to visiting the seats of power and administration, but just as one has to give in to the Houses of Parliament, there’s no avoiding the Reichstag. Which is again one of those things for which the Germans have their own super descriptive expression, which no one else can master, much less divide into syllables, to the smugness of natives. So here it goes: Deutscher Bundestag – Plenarbereich Reichstagsgebäude.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: no city is the real deal for me if it doesn’t have either a proper river, or a proper sea. For a long while Berlin seemed suspicious, because the Spree didn’t feel proper enough on the river front, being a mere tributary of the Havel, which is the tributary of the Elbe, and yes only the Elbe is finally the proper river. Seeing it personally has however convinced me of the charms of the Spree, and I am sure the Spree is now deeply relieved to have received a pass as a river worthy of a real city. Totally incidentally, travelling by train allowed us to hurtle through the valley of the Elbe at the German-Czech border and conclude that it’s totally spectacular.
It’s fair to say that you’ll bump into the remnants of the Wall pretty quickly no matter in which area of the city you are. And it’s a sobering bump- each time I saw it, I had this nagging thought of how humanity is just insane, like really INSANE, with really capital letters. Why build a wall among people and have them die trying to cross it when you can happily cycle to Copenhagen instead.
Forgive me if I’ll keep comparing Berlin to Budapest, I guess we all do that when travelling, measure the new place to the one we live in, and see how they fare. Well Berlin fares better at the what’s written on walls and lampposts- I have of course not had the time to scrutinize it quite as I do with Budapest, but the incidence of offensive messages is much lower and that of thought provoking ones definitely higher.
When the essential truths of life hit you in the solar plexus: Unter den Linden is actually under lindens. Also, the Brits call the tree lime, because, why the hell not. Or maybe because they can confuse everyone else since lime trees most definitely do not have anything to do with lime fruit. There you go, useless lexical wandering of the day. Which however led me to discover that Budapest fares better than Berlin at wi-fi connections- many coffeehouses and bars did not have them at all, or offered a measly fifteen minutes or so of traffic, which is really nothing when you have to unlock the mysteries of English vocabulary and such. Yes, I know- read a book, and read a book I did, whereupon my guide graciously informed me that the Adlon was the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled poor Blanket out of the window.
A friend of mine who happens to travel a lot by boat told me that her ultimate dream is to sit at the bow one day and cruise through the breeze, like Jack and Rose do in Titanic. (She is less convinced about the impending arrival of the iceberg, though.) Which in turn made me think that what I would like to do most is stand on the Brandenburger Tor next to the Quadriga, like angels in Der Himmel über Berlin- I hereby again protest against the English title of Wings of Desire. Because the sky over Berlin is a wondrous thing- it has that slight Northern touch about it which makes it bluer and crisper. So I’d have really nothing to complain about if I could stare into that every now and then, with the side perks of being eternal and all that.
The more I walked around Berlin the more it dawned on me how much I knew about it from films and literature. Though of course the literature part is a bit thwarted by my German being of the wurst and knödel ordering variety, just one of the many defeats I inflicted upon myself in the course of my short existence. I did however succeed in the rather art college kid endeavour of watching Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in one go, but that was with the help of like minded people, who nudged you into wakefulness when drifting off and narrated the bits you missed when on a bathroom break. Since the original novel has, by all accounts, a pretty shabby English translation, I might as well sign off now and go figure out my der, die, das-es.
The central part of the city is under pretty intensive re-building and prettifying, which will, I am sure, benefit the inhabitants of Berlin in the long run, but was just a little bit unwelcome when providing sonic backdrop akin to a fighter jet taking off to my morning coffee.
Much as I like Rome, my overall experience can be summed up as about fifty churches too many for my taste. Berlin mercifully has less, the Dome is big and bulky, I gave it a side glance and then prodded off towards the much more interesting Fernsehturm. That’s the TV tower, but allow me to wallow in the few German words I can spell off the top of my head.
Berliners didn’t strike me as weather hysterical, in the good tradition of their Scandinavian and Dutch relatives. 22 degrees with a chance of rain calls for a light raincoat at the most, not the entire Eastern European arsenal of two cardigans, a rain coat, a thicker coat shoved in your bag to make it bulky and break your shoulders, spare socks, wellingtons and a little scarf just in case.
Trivia you find when your Internet is fast and furious: Berlin Verlag is the German publishing house of both Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas, and also of Nobel prize winners Nadine Gordimer and Elfriede Jelinek. Their building also sports this pretty sign which spins around, thus causing you to block traffic waiting for Berlin to turn into the right spot and mildly anger Berliners (because Berliners are actually people and not donuts) who actually have meaningful things to do with their day.
Case in point, the young gentleman is probably headed to a specialty coffee shop for a cascara. Also of note, the traffic light with the Ampelmännchen, the typical East German symbol, which differs from the classical ones in West Germany and most of Europe in that it wears a hat. After reunification, attempts were made to standardize traffic lights all over Germany, but people wanted their old guy back, and back they did have him in most areas.
Berlin has candy cotton coloured houses (just like Vienna) and wild flowers spontaneously deciding to grow here and there.
It’s well obvious that you are in the Eastern part of Berlin when you see such a bonanza of cables. Communist states just loved their cables which ran in an insane and senseless zig zag all over cities and villages. I still remember being slightly worried about Finland’s functionality when upon visiting it I noticed how they hardly have cables compared to what I was used to. Also, the ones they have actually serve a purpose, but that’s another story.
It took me a good week or so to notice that one of the murals on Kazinczy street had been re-painted- being in a familiar environment often leads to slacking, of the body and mind. So when I travel I always walk to exhaustion and try to look at everything, the details of buildings, the faces of people, the things they do differently. It’s a phyisical and mental workout that I love- though it has the downside that once back in the old haunts I am sort of hungover and dissatisfied with the old, less demanding environment.
Since Berlin is the second city I visit during rose season- and rose season is great because it lasts longer than most other flowers, I came to the super scientific conclusion that whereas Belgrade favours a peachey-orangey coloured rose, Berlin often comes up with this pastel pink. Also, Budapest roses tend to be blood red.
Volkspark Friedrichshain was gingerly recommended as a popular gay cruising area by our guide, though it looked decidedly more demure in the midday sun. I also marked it mentally as a spot where one could do a bit of jogging, though maybe not in the later hours, so as to avoid uncomfortable run-ins.
The park also gives home to the Märchenbrunnen, of which I just saw a snowed upon picture which awoke an urge to visit the city in winter. Returning to our fountain, it is decorated with the statues of fairy tale characters, some of them looking odd, to say the least, raising within me general questions about the enjoyability of most sculpture, on the one side, and the intense quirkiness of German taste, on the other.
With the risk of being lambasted by purists- I am not a big fan of German beer. I suspect that, albeit it was a great idea to being with, the Reinheitsgebot (the beer purity law) also has the effect of making most German beers absolutely similar, and in my opinion absolutely average. I have often enjoyed German beer as a pleasant companion to food, or a sunny day, but never have I been in love with a German beer. The situation is totally different with pretzels. If there is heaven, it also includes pretzels of two varieties: the traditional Romanian sort and the German one doused with lye. The establishment where the unknown staple food of Valhalla was consumed was the buffet version of the Schönbrunn restaurant, which was warmly recommended as excellent, though sadly, I was unable to try their food. Because pretzels.
It dawned on me that I really like the idea of tram tracks with vegetation in between. I just made a mental note of that, and of also loving the word flâneur, or should I say flâneuse, because women often get left out of such lofty ideas. And then it also dawned on me that the original iteration of my wandering aimlessly around happened to have taken place in a city with vegetation between the tram tracks.
I love side streets, especially the ones which are popular with locals, but less so with tourists. And I particularly love them at off hours, early morning, when you meet the insomniacs, dog walkers and dead beat party animals, or midday, when they are deserted and you hear the incessant rattle of crockery and the unified smells of many dinners envelop you.
A good side street gets even better when there is a restaurant populated with regulars- I’m even happy to have an indefinite all local language menu and a waiter taken aback by the arrival of aliens. I’m also of the unorthodox view that German cuisine is great, because dumplings and cabbage make me happy in a way no foie gras ever will.
They drew the line of the Wall on Bernauer strasse and divided people’s homes. It seems so utterly ridiculous, looking at people casually strolling by, bikes, cars rushing through the afternoon traffic. People once died here because they wanted to cross the street, and we have learned nothing, and still think that building walls is a solution.
Free is probably a different word to someone who still felt the shadow of communism. I was lucky enough not to be stunted by it, the way my parents’ generation sadly was, but I’m probably part of the last generation who retains an inkling of what it was like to be trapped in the delusion of crazed leaders. I remember how my heart fluttered the first time I crossed from Hungary to Austria without stopping at the border, and it makes me immensely sad to see one of the best things of a unified Europe being brought into question again.
We think there’s nothing more straightforward than going round the block with your mate for a beer, a smoke, a chat. We take our freedom for granted. We mustn’t.
One of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen. But pieces of it should be left there, and hopefully they will mean something to at least a few of those visiting them. Though judging by the number of grinning selfies on street corners where people landed to their death, we’re doomed.
One of my earliest, and strangely fondest, childhood memories is perusing German ‘fashion magazines’. Don’t think in terms of Vogue and Elle, these were actually the mail order catalogues of mid-market retail chains, such as Otto or Neckerman, with the occasional excitement of an actual IKEA catalogue. The decadent pieces were smuggled into the country by those having the sublime privilege of occasionally travelling abroad, and were then worn thin by being passed around and used by seamstresses to create a semblance of Western fashion in the drab land of Romania. I was particularly struck by all the strange knick-knacks, statuettes, gnomes, colourful pots and other varied receptacles, plastic flowers and the likes which seemed to be means for these strange, alien, ideal people, the Germans, to decorate their gardens and balconies. I am happy to inform you that some things never change. This time around there is also a unifying theme in the Nationalelf’s EURO participation, which, quietly but resolutely, is expected to go all the way, Jogi Löw’s pant antics notwithstanding.
Worst advice in Berlin. Or provocation. Or just random French text, like the long lost scribble from the now defunct underground passage at Margit island, declaring that the writer loves French fries and your mum’s boobs.